The Trouble with Harry : In 1950, Harry Hay Founded the Modern Gay-Rights Movement. He May Have Been the Bravest Man in Los Angeles.
IN THE SUMMER of 1950, Harry Hay had the trappings of conventional happiness. He lived with his wife, Anita, and their two daughters in a handsome old house overlooking Silver Lake. As a production manager for Leahy’s, a manufacturer, he was indispensable. And he had the respect of the left-wing community of Los Angeles. Yet Harry was drawn to the unconventional. Creative interests tugged at him; before his marriage, he had worked as a stage actor and Hollywood ghostwriter. Marxism, with its fiery idealism and self-assured theory, had captured Hay’s passions; he joined the Communist Party, of which Anita was a member, in 1938, the year they married.
Harry and Anita worked tirelessly on civic campaigns, attended meetings, raised funds and followed current events, with a Marxist perspective, of course. Their house was often filled with students from Harry’s class, “Music, the Barometer of Class Struggle,” which he taught at the People’s Education Center downtown. Political, cultured and gracious, the Hays were considered by many to be model progressives.
But there was a secret Harry had to keep from even his most solid comrades. He had married because a counselor assured him that marriage could eclipse his homosexual urges. Within a decade, Harry realized that the deepest parts of his psyche could not be suppressed. In 1948, when the Kinsey Report concluded that as many as 10% of American men were homosexual, a central puzzle of his politics was unlocked. Inspired, Hay drafted a call for “Androgynes” to form a society, but “Bachelors Anonymous” never got off the ground.
That summer of 1950, weeks after the declaration of the Korean War, his life changed when he fell in love with a young dancer who was just getting his start in fashion design. Rudi Gernreich encouraged him to rewrite his prospectus and reinvigorate his daring dream. Harry had started his society, even if it had only two members.
WITHIN A MONTH of their meeting, Harry and Rudi set out on a field trip to drum up a discussion group on homosexuality. As an icebreaker, they armed themselves with copies of the Stockholm Peace Petition, a leftist initiative to recall the early troops that had been sent to Korea. They took the petitions to strategic spots. “We set about discovering new adherents on the two slices of beach (that) gays had quietly made their own,” Hay wrote later. “The section of beach below the Palisades, just west of Marion Davies’ estate and that slice of Malibu between the pier and the spit--which would be taken over by the surfers in the 1960s.”
Nearly 500 sunbathers signed the petition, and Hay and Gernreich asked each if he or she would be interested in attending a discussion about new findings about social deviancy. Not one was. “They were willing to designate themselves peaceniks by signing our petitions in the teeth of the Korean War . . . but were not willing to commit themselves to participating in easily disguised semi-public forums, oh-so-diffidently fingering the newly published Kinsey Report.” After more unproductive weeks of outreach, Rudi proposed that Harry take a chance on Bob Hull, a man who had come to Harry’s music class. Harry gave him a copy of the prospectus. Chuck Rowland, who lived with Hull, recalled how “Bob came home and told me about this brilliant teacher who had approached him about this.”
On Nov. 11, 1950, Hull called Harry and asked if he and a couple of friends could come over to discuss the paper. Anita and the children were away, so Harry called Rudi over and they waited outside to steer the visitors to a quiet spot on the oak-studded hillside. A thrill broke over Harry when he saw Rowland “running up the hill, waving the thing like a flag, saying, ‘We could have written this ourselves! When do we get started?’ ” The five sat on the hill that windy Armistice Day, talking and basking in each other’s excitement. “We sat there,” Hay wrote, “with fire in our eyes and far-away dreams, being gays.”
Robert Hull and Charles Dennison Rowland became founding members of the Mattachine Society. Rowland was a thoughtful, cordial man, covered with tattoos. He held a production-control job similar to Hay’s in a furniture factory downtown, but his real interest was in theater. Hull was also culturally inclined but had given up an unsteady living as a pianist for a job as a chemist.
Though Rowland and Hull were roommates and best friends, they had other lovers--Hull was having an affair with a man named Dale Jennings that winter. They had shown Jennings the prospectus and brought him along. Opinionated, intelligent and aggressively virile, Jennings had worked as a carnival roustabout and was developing a career as a screenwriter.
Both Hull and Rowland were former Party members; Rowland had headed American Youth for Democracy, which, he explained, “wasn’t officially Communist, but it was.”
Harry called Rowland “the great organizer.” Less extroverted than Harry but just as learned and determined, Rowland shared much of Hay’s outlook and know-how; they were an effective team. Jennings, never shy about confrontation, served as something of a counterweight to Harry. Hull followed the flights of strategic theory and was able to translate the political language for others, earning him the nickname “Viceroy of Mattachine.”
The idea of a homosexual organization was not completely unknown, but in the America of 1950 it seemed new and dangerous. Role models were non-existent; the conspiracy of silence regarding homosexuality was overwhelmingly effective. The five men who sat together that afternoon were more than a little afraid. But the prospect of creating a movement by, of, and for homosexuals overshadowed worries of danger.
They met weekly during the next few months, writing a charter and trying out formats for the discussion group. As they spun out the stories of their lives, they were amazed by how much they had in common but had never before expressed. A heady intimacy bonded them. The founders sometimes referred to the group as Parsifal, after Wagner’s opera about the search for the Holy Grail (a favorite of Harry’s), but more commonly called themselves the Fifth Order, and later, the Society of Fools. Harry continued to live as a married man, keeping his straight world and his new, gay world carefully separated.
The possibility of a police raid and legal persecution required that their meetings be held in secret. When the occasional guest was invited, it was standard procedure for him to meet a Mattachine member in public, then to be driven around for a few blocks before being taken to the meeting place. Blinds were always drawn, and because they had read that telephones could be used to bug a room, Rowland put the phone in a dresser drawer and put a pillow over it. “Anyone in the early ‘50s who was gay had a strange feeling of fear,” one member explained.
The laws of the era were stringently anti-homosexual; in California, as in most states, any sexual act except the missionary position between a heterosexual couple was a crime punishable by as many as 20 years in prison. Thousands of gays were arrested each year, often for simply being in a gay bar. Repeat offenders and those whose partners were minors often were sent to Atascadero State Prison and given electroshock “therapy,” or even subjected to castration. Since homosexuality was equated with scandal, few workplaces would retain an employee whose involvement with such an organization became public. Harry knew his job at Leahy’s was on the line, but organizing the Mattachine was “a call to me deeper than the innermost reaches of spirit, a vision-quest more important than life.”
It is hard to imagine today what a new and exciting prospect forming such a group was in 1950. For homosexuals to meet and share with each other in a non-sexual environment was rare. Jim Gruber, one of the final Mattachine founders, emphasized that “the population in general tended to be sedate in sexual matters, not only in behavior but even in what they said. Talking about gay sex was something you just didn’t do.”
Those early meetings probed topics such as the homosexual personality and society as well as sex. Chief among the group’s challenges was overcoming the negative, cynical mentality about gay life--epitomized by the cuttingly bitchy language of bar talk--so prevalent in homosexual gathering places. Hay and Rowland stressed the development of an “ethical homosexual culture.” This sort of social context, in which homosexuals were supportive of one another instead of being sexually competitive and acid-tongued, was unusual. Harry described it as a “glorious shock” simply to sit in a room with other gay men “and suddenly find one another good, and find ourselves so at home and ‘in family,’ perhaps for the first time in our lives.”
This new bond began to edge into Harry’s other life. On Christmas Eve, 1950, Harry and Anita threw a party. The guest list included several married couples, along with “some fellows from Harry’s music class.” The men from Mattachine played it straight and low-key, but they were still single and long past youth, sore thumbs in a heterosexual environment. Steve Fritchman, the Unitarian minister who had married Harry and Anita and whom Harry had unsuccessfully approached about sponsoring the organization, was clearly uncomfortable. So was Anita, who must have sensed that Harry’s affections lay elsewhere. (Only days before, to privately commemorate their first Christmas together, Harry had played Rudi the Gaelic folk song “I Live Not Where I Love.”)
As the guests sipped mulled wine, Bob Hull made his way to the grand piano and played carols. Harry joined him. Hull suggested they sing “Now let every tongue adore Thee,” an excerpt from the Bach cantata “Sleepers, wake.” The harmony of their voices was laden with emotion, symbolizing--perhaps even betraying--the developing feeling among their secret society. “No mortal eye hath seen, No mortal ear hath heard, Such wond’rous things, Therefore with joy our song shall soar.” As the last notes faded, Harry suddenly noticed that Anita and the married couples were on one side of the room, listening, while he and the men on the other side took up a new song.
THE NEW GROUP’S endless talk sessions often sought to create a language to discuss “the love that dare not speak its name.” Common parlance was deliberately evasive to protect homosexuals from persecution--euphemisms such as nervous , musical , and Harry’s favorite, temperamental --were politically useless, and other terms--such as deviant and invert-- were defensive at best. The predominant term, homosexual , had developed such pathological connotations that Harry and some of his friends were determined to find a new word. They finally settled on homophile , derived from the New Latin philia , meaning “friendship,” which in turn was from the Greek philos , which means “loving.”
By the end of the year, the group was holding small semi-public meetings to discuss “the homosexual issue.” They contacted people who had signed the peace petition the previous summer, and Rowland, Hull, Jennings and Hay invited likely candidates. Harry recalled that their first open-discussion group took place about Dec. 11, 1950. “Rudi brought Flo, a model he knew who was lesbian. She was blonde and very pessimistic. A couple of other women and half a dozen men were there, including one young black man. In all there were about 18. The questions raised were pretty superficial because we knew so little. We were discussing ‘a point’ but not ourselves. We liked being together. The conversation flagged, but no one wanted to go.”
Konrad Stevens and Gruber became the final founding members of the group in April, 1951. “It was like magic when they joined,” Rowland said. “Suddenly everything started to happen.” This included replacing the name, Society of Fools, with Mattachine Society, after a folk-dance tradition from Harry’s music class. The new pair lived near Occidental College, where Gruber, 24 and just out of the military, was studying for his teaching credential. His lover, known as Steve, was two years older and a photographer. Upon hearing from a friend that a new homosexual society existed, Steven proclaimed, “That’s for me,” and he and Gruber were quickly invited to join. What were later called the “Communist origins” of the Mattachine became its most explosive issue. In reality, only one concept was heavily influenced by Marxism: Harry’s application of the term cultural minority to homosexuals. “That was a new idea,” Rowland said. He recalled its start: “Once we decided we were going to organize. With my Communist background, I knew I could not work in a group without a theory. I said, ‘All right, Harry, what is our theory?’ And he said, ‘We are an oppressed minority culture.’ I agreed instantly.”
Harry extrapolated that homosexuals had to rely on a change of consciousness, an active evaluation of their identity and relationship to society, to obtain power. As the Mattachine grew, many members resisted the minority idea. “They said I was making ‘niggers’ out of them,” Harry recounted.
Though the structure of the Mattachine Society has been compared to Communist Party cells, its real model came from an older prototype--secret fraternal orders. As Harry had meticulously laid out in his 1948 prospectus, the “International Bachelors Fraternal Order for Peace and Social Dignity” was to be composed of members “anonymous to the community at large, and to each other if they so choose. . . . Membership and inter-order activity shall be Mason in character; shall be understood to be sworn to secrecy. . .”
Not all was euphoric, unanimous harmony. Dale Jennings, who later became a virulent antagonist of Harry, felt that within the consensus process, Harry would wear down the others with a “ceaseless stream of gray logic” when pressing his point. The Communist Party practice of democracy by exhaustion was Harry’s long suit. So was his temper. Most often, he fought with Jennings, who had a similar disposition. With his dominant personality and founder’s status, Harry was regularly in the spotlight, but he struggled to be flexible. “He would listen to other input,” said Gruber, “but if you confronted him on any major point, he would just erupt and prove how wrong you were. If you didn’t see it, he would simply go on and figure that you’d straighten out eventually.”
It was member Howard Senn who suggested that the ideals of the new organization be set down in writing. Begun in late March and ratified in July, 1951, the Mattachine Missions and Purposes stated the group’s threefold purposes: “TO UNIFY” homosexuals “isolated from their own kind and unable to adjust to the dominant culture. . .”; “TO EDUCATE” and improve the “woefully meager and inconclusive” information about homosexuality; “TO LEAD” . . . the whole mass of social deviates” to achieve the missions of unification and education. The document called political action on a legislative basis “imperative.” The founders also insisted on the emergence of “a highly ethical homosexual culture” as a result of their work. Citing Negroes, Jews and Mexicans as “our fellow minorities,” they proclaimed that “homosexuals can lead well-adjusted, wholesome and socially productive lives once ignorance and prejudice against them are successfully combatted, and once homosexuals themselves feel they have a dignified and useful role to play in society.” In an era in which the outer world threatened anti-gay imprisonment, electroshock, and castration, and frequent guilt, alcoholism, and suicide plagued individual gays, these ideals were astounding.
IN 1951, HARRY AND ANITA divorced. A few months later, an equally traumatic parting occurred--he left the Communist Party, which forbade homosexuality. The Mattachine thrived and a year later won its first big political victory. What started as a commonplace arrest diverted to an unusual course when Jennings, in jail and needing $50 for bail, called Harry at 2 a.m. Harry had just enough on hand, and by 6:30, Dale was released. Over a cheer-up breakfast at the Brown Derby, Harry learned what had happened. He recalled: “Dale had just broken off with Bob Hull and was not, I know, feeling very great. He told me that he had met someone in the can at Westlake Park. The man had his hand on his crotch, but Dale wasn’t interested. He said the man insisted on following him home and almost pushed his way through the door. He asked for coffee, and when Dale went to get it, he saw the man moving the window blind, as if signaling to someone. He got scared and there was a sudden pounding on the door, and Dale was arrested.”
This type of entrapment, which still lingers today, was a grim standard in the ‘50s. It amounted to a financial and emotional lynching, in which an officer accused a gay man of making a sexual advance. Often the officer had engaged in no more than a glance; sometimes he encouraged advances to the point of full participation. (A joke from the time went, “It’s been wonderful, but you’re under arrest.”) Harry knew dozens of men whose lives had been marred by this. Most respectable lawyers would not touch such cases. Often, men convicted of “vag-lewd” (vagrancy and lewdness) charges paid large fines rather than spend time in jail, where they would be singled out for beatings and rape. The dilemma, Harry recalled, made “everyone plead guilty, and plea-bargaining was a tactic not yet in practice. So to the average ribbon clerk this could mean years of debt.”
As Harry listened to Dale, a light came on. “I said, ‘Look, we’re going to make an issue of this thing. We’ll say you are homosexual but neither lewd nor dissolute. And that cop is lying.’ ”
An emergency meeting was called for that night. Aware that this untried strategy would sound foolhardy, Harry prepared “a firebrand harangue on how this is the perfect opportunity to press the issue of oppression.” Next, Rowland stood up to support the proposal. As Harry recalled, “His eyes dark and blazing, Chuck said passionately, ‘The Hinger of Fistory points!’ There was a pause while everyone stared at each other. Rudi gasped and dissolved into uncontrollable laughter, and the rest of the group followed.” That mirthful moment sealed the Mattachine decision to take on the Jennings case.
Earlier that year, Harry’s mother and another member’s mother and sister had set up the Mattachine Foundation--as heterosexuals, they could provide a secure, legal facade for fund-raising and publicity. Attorney Fred Snider had handled the foundation’s incorporation, but he was unavailable to take Jennings’ case, so Harry approached George Shibley in Long Beach. A confident Arab-American, Shibley had become known as a political firebrand and a brilliant trial lawyer by successfully defending the Latino accused in the racism-tinged Sleepy Lagoon case a decade before. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, he represented many labor unions. And in the 1960s, though a Kennedy supporter, he defended Sirhan Sirhan. Always on the side of the underdog, Shibley agreed to represent Jennings.
The Citizens’ Committee to Outlaw Entrapment was set up by the Mattachine Foundation to raise funds and command public awareness through a series of flyers addressed to “the community of Los Angeles” that were spread through gay beach areas, bus stops and selected men’s rooms. One, titled “Are You Left-Handed?” compared homosexuality to any other inborn trait.
A second leaflet hammered home the “guilt by association” idea in Harry’s original prospectus. It began with the declaration, “We, the CITIZENS’ COMMITTEE AGAINST ENTRAPMENT, an anonymous body of angry voters in full sympathy with the spirit of rebellion in our community concerning police brutality against Minorities in general, are convinced that now, also, is the time to reveal in the clearest possible manner the full threat to the entire community of the special police brutality against the homosexual minority.” This “Call to Arms” leaflet recounted “the man who parted with his valuable art collection, . . . and his savings account . . . and when he was wrung dry was turned in anyway; the professional man who paid $3,000 to get a trumped-up charge reduced to ‘disturbance of the peace,’ and the West Los Angeles businessman who pays for protection against false witnessing every week.” To break this cycle, the committee promised to fight to the Supreme Court if necessary.
The Mattachines held more frequent meetings, paying scrupulous attention to every aspect of this major campaign, which the well-liked and politically sophisticated Martin Block often ran. Block, a charming, chubby man, sometimes donned a fur piece, white gloves and pearls to provide comic relief. “He called it the ‘Helen Hokinson Lady’ after the famous cartoonist at the New Yorker,” Harry recalled. “I don’t remember that Chuck thought it ‘appropriate,’ but it broke a lot of tension.”
Legal representation posed an expensive challenge. Shibley’s services would cost $750, and the Mattachines wanted to raise $3,000 more to send trial transcripts to at least 40 lawyers around the country who might undertake similar cases. Two fund-raisers were scheduled. The most lucrative, raising more than $1,000, was a dance and raffle at the house of Jack Dye, a Mattachine member who lived at a secluded canyon estate on the coast. Almost 500 attended. The other event, while less lucrative, was culturally noteworthy. Lester Horton, one of the city’s premier dancers and choreographers, offered an evening’s take from his current program. One of his dancers had been entrapped that year, and Horton supported the campaign. The May 23 performance of three of his popular pieces nearly sold out; Harry always credited Horton with sponsoring what was likely the first fund-raiser for a gay civil-rights cause. In the end, about $1,500 was raised, which paid for Shibley and 10 copies of the trial transcript.
The trial began June 23, 1952; Jennings later described it in One magazine: “The attorney, engaged by the Mattachine Foundation, made a brilliant opening statement to the jury in which he pointed out that homosexuality and lasciviousness are not identical after stating that his client was admittedly homosexual, that no fine line separates the variations of sexual inclinations and the only true pervert in the courtroom was the arresting officer. He asked, however, that the jury feel no prejudice merely because I’d been arrested: the jury deliberated for 40 hours and asked to be dismissed when one of their members said he’d hold out for guilty till hell froze over. The rest voted straight acquittal.” The judge subsequently dismissed the charges.
The Mattachine Society called it a victory and the first time in California history that an admitted homosexual was freed on a “‘vag-lewd” charge. (Similar cases were successfully fought around the same time, but the Jennings case was unique as a deliberately cooperative gay civil-rights effort.) The story went unreported in newspapers. “We informed every paper in Southern California, every journal, radio and television station on every hearing date and on the date of the judge’s decision not to renew--to no avail!” Hay recalled bitterly. “This was a deliberate conspiracy of silence.” The triumph could only be celebrated as it was started--by leaflet.